COVID-19 Ethics - Letter from MPA President, Dr. Willie Garrett

November 24, 2020

With the promising vaccines it appears as if COVID-19 will become a thing of the past in 2021. However, doctors are saying the worst is yet to come before the entire population is vaccinated by the fall of 2021. As the death rate rises to over 2,000 daily, state leaders are implementing exposure-reduction executive orders to restrict social behaviors. This is happening at a time when people are already burned out on social distancing and wearing masks.

Psychologists may eventually face a reporting dilemma comparable to the Aids-HIV crisis of the 1980s, before anti-viral medications. As COVID-19 tracking expands, more individuals will be expected to voluntarily quarantine. At the same time there are groups demanding their personal freedom to not wear masks, close or limit their businesses, or practice social distancing. As the U.S. has never had a pandemic of this type there are no current laws that require compliance with COVID-19 medical guidelines.

I can envision a time when psychologists may experience ethical dilemmas such as a telehealth client admitting they are not telling their employer they are COVID-19 positive, a whistle blower reporting a place of employment violation, or a COVID-19-positive client planning to attend a large social gathering. Or getting a ROI or subpoena requesting session notes containing information on COVID-19 status, indicating the psychologist was aware of the person being medically non-compliant. As being positive for COVID-19 and exposing others is not a directly reportable event based on current board rules; the psychologist still has an obligation to protect themselves, their client, and the public.

I encourage you to seriously consider now, what you would do if confronted with an ethical pandemic dilemma. Psychologists are more likely to make an ethical mistake when under stress, so being proactive is important. Establish your ethical directive now. Licensure boards have been quiet so far on COVID-19 ethics. Often lawsuits set the first parameters on these gray-area issues. I suggest you include COVID-19 language in your informed consent and regularly consult with peers. MPA can help. Members can submit a question to the Ethics Committee, or receive a free attorney consultation. The American Psychological Association website offers many free articles and brief trainings, on adapting your practice to COVID-19. You may also contact the Minnesota Board of Psychology.

Stay safe in these troubling times, and check out the MPA website for updates.

Willie Garrett, Ed.D.
President, MPA
[email protected]